There’s been talk of Joe Buck heading to ESPN for weeks since that network agreed to a deal with Troy Aikman, but a complicating factor there was that unlike Aikman (who was able to exercise an opt-out and become a free agent), Buck had a year left on his Fox deal. As Jim Miller discussed earlier this month, that set up potential “horse trading” between ESPN and Fox to get Buck to ESPN this year, and he specifically mentioned “You know, if I’m Fox, I might ask for two or three Big Ten games.” Well, Andrew Marchand of The New York Post reported Friday that Fox had granted ESPN permission to talk to Buck, with a deal expected shortly. Merchant then noted on Twitter later Friday that in return, Fox is expected to receive the right to pick one extra Big Ten game before ESPN this fall:
Fox and ESPN first talked about compensation late last night. Fox will receive the rights to pick one Big 10 game before ESPN next season, a source with knowledge said.
It’s a little more complicated than that, I’m told, but that is the gist. https://t.co/M6Rkr6y6GO
— Andrew Marchand (@AndrewMarchand) March 12, 2022
Merchant does note there that it’s “a little more complicated than that,” so there could be other components to this as well. But that pick is certainly important, and valuable. In the current Big Ten deals, which run through the upcoming 2022-23 season, ESPN and Fox currently have an equal split of Big Ten rights when it comes to football and men’s basketball tonnage (CBS also has a small basketball-only package, but that’s not important here). But Fox pays the conference around $240 million a year, while ESPN pays around $190 million.
The two big differences that lead Fox to pay that much more are that they get the conference championship game and first pick of regular-season football games. They tend to use that first pick on Ohio State-Michigan, which is sometimes the year’s most-watched regular-season game and is always Fox’s most-watched regular-season game; thus, when that game didn’t happen in 2020, that was a huge blow for them. So these picks can mean a lot, and there’s some value there for Fox even if this deal is only acquiring one extra pick (it may be more, with that “more complicated than that” note).
There are several potential candidate games Fox could use this pick on, but the selection AA has heard is most likely is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Ohio State Buckeyes in Week 1, on September 3. (Yes, Notre Dame isn’t a Big Ten team, but that game falls in the Big Ten TV package because Ohio State is at home.) That would be a useful game for Fox on a few fronts. For one, both teams are good TV draws in general (in 2019, Ohio State was the most-watched team, and Notre Dame was eighth). And there may be even more interest than usual in the Fighting Irish given that this will be their first game under new head coach Marcus Freeman (with Brian Kelly leaving for LSU after last season).
Update: ESPN’s Burke Magnus says this isn’t the case:
— Burke Magnus (@burkemagnus) March 13, 2022
Our original post continues below:
But beyond that, there aren’t a ton of other great games that week that Fox could conceivably feature in their Big Noon Saturday slot (the main slot they care about). The only other Power 5 on Power 5 games that Saturday are Georgia-Oregon, Illinois-Indiana, Utah-Florida, Rutgers-Boston College, and Louisville-Syracuse. The last three of those games have SEC or ACC teams at home, so ESPN has the rights. Georgia-Oregon is in the Pac-12 package, which ESPN and Fox split, but noon Eastern kickoffs are not ideal for West Coast teams, where that’s nine am Pacific (the Pac-12 has explored that idea, but has so far only done it on rare occasions). Illinois-Indiana might be the Big Noon pick if Fox wasn’t able to get Notre Dame-Ohio State, but they absolutely would prefer the Fighting Irish and Buckeyes. And that would let them start their season (well, the main part of their season; there will be Week 0 games and midweek games before this) off with a bang. (It may not go over great with the schools and with fans, though; there have been a million cases of schools and fans complaining about these noon kicks.)
We don’t yet have full confirmation that this is how Fox will use the pick they acquired in trade for Buck. But it seems likely at this point. And if that does come to pass, that may wind up being a pretty good trade for them. There wouldn’t be a lot of point to keeping them an unhappy Buck around for a year, and this lets them move on to their succession plans immediately; it also gives them a potential dramatic increase in CFB viewership for at least one week. So that’s maybe even a better trade then when ESPN parent Disney obtained Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from NBC in exchange for letting Al Michaels out of his contract in 2006; yes, Oswald’s featured in some Disney video games and theme parks since, but that overall impact has been limited. Getting Notre Dame-Ohio State in exchange for Buck might be a bigger deal.
[Andrew Marchand on Twitter]